Bashar al-Assad (b. 1965) has been the President of the Syrian Arab Republic since the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in June of 2000.
The Syrian legislature approved a constitutional amendment the day his father died, lowering the minimum age for president from 40 to 34 and paving the way for Bashar’s unopposed election the following month.
The Assad family has led an authoritarian regime in Syria for nearly 50 years.
Bashar al-Assad, who trained as a doctor in Damascus and studied ophthalmology in London, was one of five children. In reality, he was never meant to be president – that was to be the responsibility of his oldest brother, Basel. Unfortunately, Basel was killed in a car accident in 1994. Bashar immediately left his medical training and returned to Syria to serve in the army while being groomed as his father’s successor.
Shortly after he became president, he married Asma Akhras, a wealthy, well-educated Syrian-born woman raised in London, on New Year’s Day 2001. They have three children: Hafez (2001), Zein (2003) and Karim (2004).
Some political commentators hoped that the son’s rule would be less cruel and authoritarian than the father’s. Hafez al-Assad was known to execute his political foes and brutally suppress uprisings, as in the 1982 Hama massacre. Tragically, Bashar has followed in the same path.
Assad’s greatest struggle by far is the complicated and brutal civil war that began in March, 2011. More than half a million people have been killed. The conflict has displaced 5.6 million people who have fled Syria and another 6.6 million who are displaced within the country.
The war began when young Syrians, tired of oppression and encouraged by the protests happening across the Arab world, took to the streets to demand government reforms. The protesters hoped Assad would respond with reason and reform, but he reacted instead with violence, ordering government security forces to shoot protesters and imprison rebels. The complexity of the Syrian war has intensified as Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and others have gotten involved, supporting numerous local and foreign rebel groups.
Ironically, though the Assad family is very powerful, they are Alawites, a minority sect of Shiite Muslims. Before the war, Christians, as fellow minorities in Syria, found protection under Assad’s rule as long as they did not threaten the government. Since the war began, all religious minorities have been put at risk, and hundreds of thousands of Christians have left the country.